f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Smith and 9th by Elizabeth Ann Osborn

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Smith and 9th by Elizabeth Ann Osborn

White ceramic pieces are set against square aquamarine tiles. These tiles make the station logo. It reads SMITH 9TH ST. More tiles, these ones rectangular and mint green, border the sign. Parts of the mosaic are chipped, as if bullets hit them, and the glaze on some of the lower tiles is peeling off like the kind of nail polish I used to get at the toy store, in those safe-for-kids cosmetic kits.

The cast iron platform is rusting, and the whole thing might look better if the weather would just finish stripping the white paint off of it. The electrical piping is rusting; the white chain link around the otherwise open, glassless windows is rusting. Even I’m rusting, just standing here, waiting for the train.

You’d think with the Ikea store that just opened in Red Hook, this old train station would get a little bit of love. But I guess that’s not how things work. Maybe if Brooks Brothers and Saks and Cartier decided Red Hook was the place to be and moved their stores to this old shipping section of Brooklyn, maybe then this station would get a scrub-down.

But if that happened, the locals would gripe. We don’t mind the hike to the station, or the two flights of stairs and two escalators from the mezzanine to the platform. We don’t care that these long, almost-abandoned platforms feel as if they’ll tumble like Jericho if the right wind comes off New York Harbor. We all belong to this station, and this station belongs to us.

This stretch of the IND, all the way down to Coney Island, is aboveground, but it’s considered the subway. This station is 91 feet above street-level, and is the highest point on the IND. It was built in the 30s. The reason it’s so high up is because the Gowanus Canal passes under it, and the Gowanus Canal is a tall-mast shipping route. The Gowanus Canal stinks to the highest of heavens because the sewer treatment plant overflows on a regular basis, and the combined sewer outlets, when overworked, pour into the canal. One of my friends grew up down here, and in the summers, when the heat made the stink stink so bad that his breakfast threatened to make an encore appearance all over his secondhand Air Jordans, he would run as fast as he could to get from one side of the canal to the other without inhaling.

I’ve learned to breathe out of my mouth when I’m up here, and I don’t really remember what the canal smells like. Just that it’s awful.

You feel the train before you hear it, and you hear it before you see it. And the big, lit F with a circle around it screeches its brakes and you wonder if the train ever wishes it had wings so it could flap backwards the way big birds do when they’re landing too fast.

The doors fake me out every time, by starting to open, then not opening, then a second later opening for real. In the summers I like to stand close to the doors to feel the cool blast of the air conditioning, but on a temperate day like today it doesn’t really matter. Two people get off. I get on. This car is almost vacant: just a little girl, maybe three years old, with short cornrows, sucking her thumb and hanging onto her mom’s arm, and her mom can’t be much older than me, maybe twenty-four or twenty-five. Mom has cornrows that are neater and tighter and longer than her daughter’s. It’s them and me, and a middle-aged Latino man in a rumpled blue jumpsuit whose head lolls and eyes flicker open, only to close again before I even sit down.
I find an ugly orange seat just like all the other ugly orange seats. On the F train, and some of the other lines, there are seats that face forward and backward, not only lining the sides of the trains. I’m a traditionalist, so I choose one of the seats facing a window, and then I put my bag down in the seat next to me.

“This is da Queens-bound F train. Next stop Carroll Street. Stand clear a’ the closin’ doors.” The conductor sounds adequately bored. “Stand clear a’ the doors.“ The doors half-close, then open up, then half-close, then open up again, then close for real. I sink a bit more into my ugly seat and the train rocks into motion. I close my eyes until my cones or rods or whatever it is that tells me that it’s light or dark, even with my eyes closed, tells me that it’s dark. That means we’re underground now, and about two minutes later the train stops again.

At Carroll Street, a few older women with big bags get on and spread out around the car. One pulls out a crossword book, another pulls out a magazine, and the third runs her thumb around the smart dial of her iPod while her other hand messes with the thin white wires trailing up to her ears. This appears to be an old habit, but earbuds haven’t been around too long.

A Hasidic Jew got on at Carroll Street, too, and remained standing, leaning against the car’s end rail for support as he read a newspaper. I didn’t look at him, but I made out his black felt fedora, his dark suit and his rekel all out of the corner of my eye.

“This is da Queens-bound F train. Next stop Bergen Street. Stand clear a’ da doors. Stand clear.”

And we’re moving again.

The little girl with cornrows is crying.

I have no idea why.

Mom moves her purse from her lap and pulls Girl into its place. She wraps her arms around the little thing, and the little thing keeps her little arms close to her own chest, but burrows her head in her mamma’s shoulder. The little shoulders jump when the little thing gulps air into her little lungs. Mom strokes Girl’s nape, the soft, sable patch of skin just above the zippered neck of Daughter’s khaki sundress. She strokes the one spot with just her fingers moving, just her fingertips massaging the girl. She’s as aware as I am of her manicured red nails with the rhinestone stickers, and she doesn’t want to scratch the little thing.

I am not the only one watching this.

The lady with the magazine reaches into her bag. I hear the rustle of plastic over the sound of the train, and then the sound of plastic tearing. The lady pulls out her hand, then moves her bag and stands up. She grabs hold of the steel rail above her and takes a few steps toward the pair.

“Hi, baby,” she says, and her accent is strong and southern, but not southern like you find down by the docks. Real southern, like Georgian or Carolinian or something.

The little thing doesn’t look up. That doesn’t put the woman off. She holds out her hand, opening her fingers for Mom’s inspection.

Chocolate.

“It’s like oil, for annointin’,” the woman says. “Whatever the matter is, it won’t be quite so bad, at least for a bit.”

Mother laughs. “She’s got a sore throat, and we gotta go to the clinic. She ain’t happy about it.” She pulls the little thing away from her, but does it so gently that I’m stuck wondering if anyone was ever that tender with me when I was a little thing. “Rikiya, look. The lady’s got something for you.”

Rikiya rubs her big, pretty eyes and turns her tiny, pretty face up to the lady. She recognizes the gold foil wrapper, then sniffs and puffs and smiles. “Thank you,” she says clearly, and takes it.

She takes it without hesitation.

She doesn’t feel guilty about taking something offered by someone else. Even if that other person deserves it more.

She doesn’t think it’s frivolous or immature to accept something nice.

She doesn’t worry about the calories or the cavities.

She just smiles and takes it.

Her mother unwraps it and hands it back to her.

The lady sits back down and returns to her magazine.

Rikiya doesn’t cry again. They get off at Jay Street-Borough Hall, and I’m left thinking about healing and receiving and letting other people be kind. I think about these things in the tunnel under the East River, and through all those stops in Manhattan, and then back across the river to Queens. And I don’t once chide myself for taking the local and not the express.